Do as you will? Behind the scenes of ‘the Hellfire Club’

As hospitality venues and social spaces in much of the UK reopen after lockdown this week, in today’s blog Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our Lords 1715-1790 project, looks into the parliamentarians possessing memberships to a notorious 18th century social group…

Pray remember the ghost for me to-night, and next Monday we meet at Medmenham.

On 15 June 1762 John Wilkes sent this apparently rather cryptic message to his friend and collaborator on the North Briton, Charles Churchill. The ‘ghost’ was probably a reference to one of Churchill’s poems, but their rendezvous at Medmenham was if anything more mysterious still, Medmenham Abbey being the headquarters of the co-called ‘Order of St Francis of Medmenham’, also known (erroneously) as the Hellfire Club.

Quite what went on at Medmenham has long been the subject of occasionally lurid speculation and as one historian has suggested, it is a topic that ‘attracts cranks and repels scholars’ [N.A.M. Rodger, The Insatiable Earl, p.80]. At its most extreme some have suggested, almost certainly without foundation, that devil worship took place there, while at the other end it has been proposed that it was a somewhat eccentric antiquarian-cum-erotic meeting place of senior politicians, who assembled to indulge in boating parties, cavort with sex workers brought in from London for the purpose, share their interest in classical authors and plot. The more colourful rumours of what went on within the bounds of Medmenham were encouraged by the enticing message erected over the doorway: Fay ce que vouldras, or Do as you will, a quotation from Rabelais.

As well as uncertainty about exactly what went on behind the doors of Medmenham, there has been much speculation about who was involved. Some have even speculated that the club never existed at all. However, a few figures are well-attested among the membership, including some of the most striking political figures of the period.

Sir Francis Dashwood (Lord Le Despencer) at his devotions; engraving with etching; © The Trustees of the British Museum

The founder of the fraternity was Sir Francis Dashwood, chancellor of the exchequer during the premiership of the earl of Bute, and later a member of the Lords as Baron le Despencer. Dashwood had leased Medmenham, close to his own seat at West Wycombe, in 1751, and proceeded to renovate the dilapidated abbey buildings, turning the site into a summer pleasure ground, where he could invite friends for parties on the Thames and picnicking among the ruins. It was an important juncture. That year the heir to the throne, and focal point of the main opposition alliance, Frederick Prince of Wales, had died unexpectedly, leaving the opposition without an obvious rallying point.

It is possible, then, that as well as a place for summer frolics Medmenham was also intended in part as a new locus for politicking. Certainly some of those associated with the early days of Medmenham had clear opposition links: John Tucker, ‘an absolute creature’ of George Bubb Dodington was one; another was Sir William Stanhope, younger brother of the earl of Chesterfield and a noted collector of Italian antiquities. Thomas Potter the rakehell son of the archbishop of Canterbury and a member of the prince’s household was one of the more outrageous attendees at Medmenham, and it was through him that John Wilkes, one of the best-known politicians of the century, found his way there as well, where he was apparently known, in cod-monastic fashion as ‘John of Aylesbury’.

It is to Wilkes that we owe many of the descriptions of Medmenham, though as he later took against the group much of it should be taken with more than a dash of salt. What he does appear to have confirmed, though, was that it was a lively social club, welcoming to politicians and literary figures alike and that while much of what went on was innocent enough, the members occasionally allowed themselves a very free rein. In the late summer of 1762 Wilkes was called out by Earl Talbot for remarks he had made about him in the press. A place and time was arranged for a duel, but on arrival Wilkes asked for time to settle himself, explaining that:

I was come from Medmenham Abbey, where the jovial monks of St Francis had kept me up till four in the morning, that the world therefore would conclude I was drunk

and thus in no fit state to fight a duel. [North Briton, 12 Nov. 1763, 1769 reprint]. The bout was delayed accordingly, and resulted in both men firing their pistols and missing thereby ensuring that honour was satisfied.

The denouement for the club came soon after the death of George II. First, there was triumph as a number of Prince Frederick’s old associates (many of them club members or hangers on) were given places in the new administration headed by the earl of Bute, among them Dashwood himself. Then there was disarray as Wilkes, denied a series of posts for which he put his name forward, established (with Churchill) the anti-ministerial North Briton and proceeded to leak information about the club and its now more than respectable members to the press. The paper helped bring down the ministry, but Wilkes was then hounded through the courts, wounded in a duel and ultimately forced to seek sanctuary on the continent.

‘The Hellfire Club’ may have encouraged its members to do what they would, but for all the bizarre rumours of its rituals and the obvious enjoyment by those who attended of indulgence in classical pornography, it was probably not so very different from other societies like the Dilettanti, also co-founded by Dashwood. What seems most clear, though, was that it brought together a lively group of prominent politicians and writers and that their behaviour there was sufficiently indecorous for them to be keen for the details not to be known. By admitting a disruptor like Wilkes into the setting Dashwood sowed the seeds of the club’s destruction and set in train a series of events that would result in high-profile campaigns for reform of the press, for limiting executive power, and even of the franchise.


Further reading:

Geoffrey Ashe, The Hell-fire clubs: a history of anti-morality

N.A.M. Rodger, The Insatiable Earl: A Life of John Montagu, 4th earl of Sandwich

John Sainsbury, John Wilkes: the lives of a libertine

Edward H Weatherly, ed. The Correspondence of John Wilkes and Charles Churchill

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